Why Did the Target Change?

 5 September 2002

Why Did the Target Change?

By Gwynne Dyer

Beyond grief and anger, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States should raise a question in the minds of Americans: when and why did the target change?

Later this year or early next, unless the Bush administration changes course radically, there is going to be an American attack on Iraq. Yet this was not US policy for almost five months after September 11th, 2001.

President Bush’s initial response to the emergency was good. He understood that a massive and indiscriminate American retaliation against suspected ‘terrorist’ targets across the Arab world was precisely what the sponsors of the attacks wanted. The first goal of Islamist extremists in the Arab world is the overthrow of their own pro-Western governments, and lots of innocent Arabs killed by American bombs would give their cause a huge boost.

But the United States showed great patience while it investigated the attacks: no American soldier anywhere fired a shot in anger for almost three weeks after September 11th. The intelligence agencies uncovered dozens of leads tying the hijackers to the al-Qaeda organisation, and virtually none linking them to any other plausible candidate. In the case of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, for example, there was only one brief contact between one of the hijackers and the intelligence officer at the Iraqi embassy in Prague.

So President Bush concluded that the orders and the money for the attacks came from Osama bin Laden’s organisation in Afghanistan. This greatly simplified America’s political problem, since al-Qaeda, though largely an Arab organisation dedicated to overthrowing Arab governments, had its headquarters in Afghanistan, a non-Arab country.

That meant that you could attack Osama bin Laden without killing lots of innocent Arabs. As a bonus, Afghanistan’s army under the extremist Taliban regime was a ramshackle, badly led force. Afghanistan was not only the right target, but easy and politically safe.

Virtually all of America’s friends and allies accepted this analysis too, and the United States easily got a resolution from the United Nations Security Council authorising it to attack Afghanistan. It won that war easily, too: a flood of US arms and special forces advisers for the Afghan regime’s internal enemies, ten weeks of intense bombing, and the Taliban collapsed. By late December, the US was at the point where it could declare a victory and go home.

True, the operation had not yet captured Osama bin Laden and his senior advisers or even Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban regime, but once deprived of their secure base in a sovereign state they became essentially a police problem, not a military one. Honour had been satisfied, the threat had been reduced as much as sheer armed force could help to shrink it, and not a single pro-Western regime in the Arab world had been shaken. Ten out of ten.

Then President Bush announced in early February that he was going to attack Iraq (followed, in due course, by Iran and North Korea). It was a lateral arabesque of breath-taking daring, a policy shift that could have been introduced with Monty Python’s famous line: “And now for something completely different….” What on earth happened?

Partly it was displacement activity: frustrated in its desire to find the men who were actually responsible for the attack, the Bush administration turned its wrath on other known enemies of the United States who had fixed addresses. Perhaps it was also a revival of the old family feud between the Bushes and Saddam Hussein’s clan. It may even have had to do with maintaining wartime levels of support for the government in an election year, though we should strive to avoid cynicism.

Most of all, however, it was an illustration of the adage that to a man who has only a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To expect further rapid progress against the al-Qaeda network by American intelligence agencies would be unreasonable: that’s not the way intelligence works. But President Bush does have a large, effective military force at his disposal, and the temptation to use it on something is very strong — even if it’s likely to be the wrong thing.

There is still no evidence connecting Saddam Hussein with September 11th, nor any reason to think he would have been involved. He is certainly no Islamist fanatic, and as Arab leaders go he’s not even especially anti-American: during his first decade in power he was a de facto ally of the United States, and got major American military help in his long war with Iran. He is a bad man and he has been in defiance of UN resolutions on arms inspections for years, but he is a US target now because a target was wanted.

If the US attacks Saddam, his first response will be to fire a couple of missiles at Israel, thus unleashing a massive Israeli retaliation against Iraq and making it look like a joint American-Israeli attack on the Arabs. That would be a victory for al-Qaeda beyond the plotters’ wildest dreams. But the one thought to cling to during the roller-coaster ride of the coming months is that NONE OF THIS HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE TERRORISTS OF SEPTEMBER 11TH.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“That meant…safe”;and “Most…thing”)